John Owens in uniform and in the Gulf War
As the world today marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the first Gulf War, John – one of the youngest soldiers to serve in the conflict – has a unique insight into his time as a teen warrior. Having finished his basic training just a month earlier, he boarded a flight – his first time on a plane – in January 1991 and headed to the Middle East to join the offensive. As a member of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, John and his team followed behind the front line, helping to organise and detain the many prisoners of war who were collected as the battle progressed.
He was among 53,000 British troops who joined America in the Middle East, in what was the largest deployment of UK Armed Forces since the Second World War.
Looking back, John says that entering the “harrowing” conflict so young made him grow up fast but he believes it made him the soldier and the man he is now.
And although he says the trauma of his military career has left him with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), he has no regrets.
“I didn’t really know much about the Gulf,” admits Ayrshire-born John, now 47. “I wasn’t paying much attention to it all kicking off but I was keen.
“I was running on adrenaline rather than nerves because I hadn’t had a great deal of time to prepare. I was naive.
“It was a bit surreal because I was trying to find my feet in a new family, away from home and starting my first job.
John was one of the youngest soldiers to be deployed
“When we arrived, reality hit. We were witnessing the sounds, the smoke and the smell of war. It was so clammy and warm, and we just felt ‘right, this is it’. It was time to do what we were trained for. I learned that there was no time to be complacent.”
John was only just out of school but suddenly found himself sharing tents with experienced soldiers and driving through battlegrounds with bombs falling.
He describes the first times he heard the alarms rattling to warn the troops of an impending chemical attack as “terrifying”, as they sat in nuclear biological suits and waited to find out if everything was clear.
“I felt myself growing up so much in a war zone,” he added. “As the advance was going on and the war was escalating through into Kuwait we didn’t have time to think about home.
“I had to learn on the job and adapt fast. You have to trust one another and be there for the others but my peers were grown men with families.
“It was pretty harrowing when I think about it.”
John was only just out of school when he went to war
Not only did John enter a warzone at such a tender age, he was to discover in later life that he was living with a hole in the heart which he had since birth. It would lead to him having two strokes.
Yet he still had an illustrious career in the military, taking part in conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan and even returning to Iraq. He reached the position of colour sergeant and became a weapons instructor before being medically discharged in 2014 after suffering a stroke.
He would later find out this was his second, as he was misdiagnosed in the 1990s.
The legacy of this conflict has been plagued by reports of “Gulf War syndrome”.
Thought to be the result of exposure to the nerve agent sarin – although it is not known for sure – a wide range of acute and chronic symptoms have been linked to it, including fatigue, muscle pain, cognitive problems, insomnia and rashes.
The Royal British Legion said research suggests 33,000 UK Gulf War veterans could be living with the syndrome, and the lack of understanding has had a serious impact on veterans.
John went on to have an illustrious military career
John said: “On my return I went through a phase, looking at loads of studies and science.
“What if it is a real thing and caused me to have my stroke in the 1990s? I guess everyone who served there will go through that thought process. It plays on the mind. But I never found any evidence to say, yes, I have it.”
John’s mental health also took a hit after he had his second stroke and left the military. He broke down, reflecting on the traumas of his early career. He contacted the charity Help For Heroes which helped him come to terms with his ordeal.
“My PTSD and the journey I have had left me with some dark times at the end of my career, so coming through my illness I reflected on the darkest days,” he said.
“Regardless of what age you are, when you’re in the back of a truck with a platoon with 20 other soldiers and can hear the aircraft and smell the bombs, it has to have some sort of long-term psychological effect. It was one of the things Help For Heroes assisted with, speaking to the psychology team.
John suffered mental health issues after leaving the military
“You don’t think about it at the time or during your career. It is only later when you realise the impact on your day-to-day living, mental health and life.”
John has published his first book, Davy’s Run, about being inspired to run a year of marathons to commemorate his late Army best friend “Big Davy”, where he describes his recovery journey. This followed creative writing guidance from Help For Heroes and is available on Amazon.
Despite describing the war as having taken the end of his childhood, John said he does not regret his decision to join up.
“There weren’t many opportunities in Ayrshire when I was young. I knew I wanted to get out, to see the world,” he said.
“I reflect on the Gulf War and think about if I hadn’t joined the Army, what would my options have been? I don’t know what I would have ended up doing.
“If I had chosen a different career, if I’d had more of my youth, I probably would have been more rebellious.
“In the end, it has made me who I am.”